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Kentucky Horse Country
By Shane DuBow
In the lush heart of Kentucky horse country, 34-year-old Marc McLean looks over his family's Thoroughbred stud farm and sees a lot more than the signs of spring. More than new buds and sprouting green things. More than once-white fence boards now redone in cost cutting black. More, because these days he also sees horse-killing suspects. He sees, for example, the frosty shellac of an overnight cold snap, and he knows this frost might stress the grass and make it briefly noxious. Or he sees the odd tuft of tall fescue or white clover in the pastures, and he knows these plants can be toxic. And then there's the recent hatch of eastern tent caterpillars—their ubiquitous nests in the cherry trees like the snagged puffs of some cottony explosion—and he can't help but worry about their biblical numbers despite all the experts who say these caterpillars pose no equine threat.
It's a windy April morning, and Marc, in crisp jeans and a button down, is leaning on a gate. Just now he's waiting on the "worm killers," two locals with a pickup-mounted bug sprayer, to make him feel like he's doing all he can. Nearby, his family's most valuable broodmare, Begin, stands pregnant and alone in a well watched paddock. In a few hours Marc will muzzle her up, due to a frost warning, to keep her from grazing on anything bad. "Long as last year's problems don't come back," he says, "that Begin foal ought to be worth, I don't know . . . a few hundred thousand would be nice." Moments later, however, as if to darken such hopes, a fast-traveling caterpillar worms on past. Then another. And another. Until finally, Marc sighs and draws a bead on the leader with his boot. "These worms' only natural predator," he cracks, "is the foot." Then he grinds down. And in this one beleaguered but resilient act, he frames the basic story of life on a hardworking family horse farm a year after a baffling plague has left the state's famed pastures empty of some 3,000 foals, about 50 of which would have been born and raised here, on the McLean property, at Crestwood Farm.
So what might it take for a relatively humble, relatively traditional stud farm like Crestwood to endure this first 20-week breeding season since the industry's worst year? And what might happen to a farm like Crestwood and, by extension, to the central Kentucky horse world if that mysterious sickness comes back? No one really knows, but everyone's plenty worried, and the local papers are full of speculations and stats. There are some 500 Thoroughbred horse farms in and around Lexington, where most of the state's breeders cluster, and the pastures, fed by the rich leavings of a long vanished sea, are said to be among the world's best. Some of these farms boast thousands of acres of pasture, hundreds of horses, plus helicopter landing pads, stained-glass barn windows, and ornamental gardens fit for kings. But those farms are exceptions, symbols of the opulence for which the sport is known. And the lack of such indulgences at a place like Crestwood remains more the rule.
All told, the state's farms birth some 10,000 foals yearly and make up the economic and cultural hub of the U.S. racing industry. In Kentucky that industry accounts for some 40,000 jobs—all the vets, trainers, riders, grooms, blacksmiths, hot-walkers, handicappers, and others that make livings off these fleet-footed animals—as well as Keeneland, the nation's most regal track. Which isn't to imply that anyone thinks Keeneland alone, with its exclusive club and conservative dress code, might hold everyone else together if the plague returns and one of the state's top industries loses another 30 percent of its would-be foals.
It began in 2001 at one of the region's larger and more corporate-style operations called Taylor Made. It was midway through a historic spring heat wave tagged by three odd nights of rimy dew, when a well-known vet named Tom Riddle nosed his truck into one of the Taylor's spiffy barns. He'd come to perform some routine ultrasounds on a few pregnant mares. The procedure, which involves a wheeled video monitor and a rectal probe, would reveal the sex of the in utero foals. On Dr. Riddle's monitor, if all went well, the gestating forms would show up with faint heartbeats and tiny genital buds, the fetus a fuzzy white planet in a dark sky of clear fluid, which, when healthy, shows up black. But now, in two of the scans, the dark sky looked more like a nighttime snowstorm—sans pulse. "What I was thinking," Dr. Riddle would later recall, "was that this was very unusual, very coincidental, to find two slipped foals back-to-back like that in the very same barn. Ordinarily, in a normal year, I might not see five like that during the whole season, and I might check 400 mares."
Over the next few days, as all the pomp of the Kentucky Derby (upcoming in Louisville 80 miles (130 kilometers) west) swung into gear, Dr. Riddle would find more distressed mares at several other farms and thus be forced to consider if this might not be some blooming epidemic. And yet the pattern seemed unclear. The troubled mares lived in various counties, grazed in various fields, slept in various barns, ate feed from various suppliers, had been bred to various studs. The only obvious connection, it seemed, was himself. Could he have spread some infectious agent in his daily rounds? Something on his boots, or a piece of equipment, or his truck? To find out, he ran his findings past some fellow vets and learned he wasn't alone. As select equine experts received hushed alerts—horse breeders are famously sensitive to bad PR—and as rumors of unprecedented early fetal losses began to mount, a second problem emerged: the sudden appearance of hundreds of late-term foals ending their 11-month gestations in a gushing placental tangle known as a red bag, a messy and dangerous form of birth.
By Derby day, unbeknownst to the giddy masses at Churchill Downs, a line of trucks bearing dead horse babies had formed outside Lexington's equine autopsy lab. And the lab, inundated with carcasses, had scrambled to make space, lining freezers and hallways with overflow horseflesh. Hours later, while Monarchos broke for the roses and all the gents in seersucker and ladies in hats fingered their bets, a common sight around Lexington became the flash of a vet-bound pickup, blood-spattered barn hands performing frantic mouth-to-mouth on stillborn foals in back. Which is about when this plague, which would come to be known as mare reproductive loss syndrome (or MRLS), hit Crestwood.
In a tough-loved pickup one year later, with his annual breeding season half done and no hint yet of the plague's return, Marc recalls the night his foals started dying. "At first it was just the late terms, the ones that break your heart, because you've carried them so far, and when they come out they're full-on babies. I think, for a while there, we had about five red bags in a row, and you're trying to save them, trying to pull 'em out fast, but a lot of times they just don't make it and it's really depressing. If you add in the early ones, yeah, we got hit."
So have such hits, at Crestwood and elsewhere, pushed breeders toward the fiscal edge?
At Mill Ridge Farm, Alice Chandler, whose father helped found Keeneland, will confirm only that discovering the plague's arrival in her barns, after returning from the Derby, made her feel "like the sky was falling. That was the first time I was aware of it," she says. "This sweeping problem. It was just awful." At Adena Springs, Eric Hamelback, then president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Manager's Club, reckons that "the entire industry will be feeling the ripples of this thing for the next few years. This year you'll see it in the annual sales with less weanlings. Next year you'll see the impact in terms of fewer yearlings. And in 2004 and 2005 you'll start to see it on the track with fewer horses there to compete."
Here at Crestwood, Marc's courtly, white-haired father, Pope Sr., a 40-year industry veteran, weighs in by first reminding me that Crestwood isn't "one of these fancy places that just does this as a hobby. We're not stringing up a lot of chandeliers in the sheds, if you know what I mean. We don't have any oil money or real estate money to play with. Every penny we make, we make from this"—breeding, boarding (about half of Crestwood's stock is client owned), and selling horses.
"So there you go," Marc adds later. "If we had another year like last year, if we lost another 30 percent, then we might be in some trouble. But surely we're about in the same boat as everyone else." His point being: If the syndrome returns and its cause remains unknown, a lot of spooked clients might pull their animals out of the state and the whole Kentucky horse business might, as one bourbon-voiced old-timer puts it, "make like water in a bathtub after somebody pulls the plug." Or as Marc himself puts it as we park at the breeding shed where the stallions do their "work" and the McLeans, in a manner of speaking, make their best hay: "This MRLS doesn't discriminate. We're all in this together. We're just crossing our fingers and trying to make babies. You do know how we make babies, right?"
In fact, this baby-making, for many central Kentucky farms, is what being in the horse business is mostly about. More than any training or racing, it's the mating, foaling, and auctioning off of the resulting offspring that consumes many a farm manager's days. Which is to say, if you want a real glimpse at life on a central Kentucky horse farm, a glimpse that shows where these breeders go to facilitate new beginnings and recharge hopes, you could do worse than to visit a few breeding sheds.
At the top end there are those like the one at Irish-owned Ash-ford Stud, perhaps the world's busiest Thoroughbred farm, where some of the planet's most booked stallions breed as many as three times a day. The breedings go on in a yawning 11,000-square-foot (1,020-square-meter) limestone complex topped with skylights and ringed by hedging. The complex is sectioned into quadrants. The quadrants are spoked about a glass booth that allows veterinarians and farm managers to make like air-traffic controllers and oversee successive couplings like incoming planes. "After last year's problems," a manager grumbles, "there's been a lot more mares needing to get bred. People ask how we fit 'em all in." He rubs his head and looks impatient. "I say, 'Hell, the lads just get it done.'" Conversely, at the low end, there are sheds like the one at Golden Gate, where veteran farm manager Jimmy Boyd stands just one stallion, for "just a few" breedings, in a dusty barn space that doubles as an exercise ring. And then, somewhere in between, there are the more typical setups like the one at Crestwood.
It's late April, and we are a half dozen men come together to help some dangerously large animals have sex. We are here in this old wooden "shed"—and not in some frozen-sperm repository with an artificial inseminator—because no track will let you race a horse not conceived by so-called natural cover, and because, though these horses could very naturally figure out how to "cover" themselves, as they do in the wild, they might not do it with attention to human scheduling and safety.
The idea is to produce a straight limbed, commercially attractive foal with enough speed, as the colloquialism goes, "to outrun a fat man." The catch, if you own the mare, is to do it without going broke. At Overbrook Farm, the world's priciest stud, Storm Cat, books mares at half a million each—which might help explain why so many breeders have been turning to Storm Boot, a top son of Storm Cat, who stands at Crestwood for a 30th of the cost.
The love unfolds in choreographed stages. The mares get vanned in, then soaped and lubed with gynecological precision before being exposed to the "teaser horse." He's a whale-shaped Morgan named Picho, whose Sisyphean task it is to suss out which mares are in the mood.
Often this requires only that he nuzzle each mare's haunches, at which point a hormonally ripe mare will let loose with a stream of "I'm yours" urine. Other times, should a mare's biological hints seem more subtle, Picho may be asked to actually "jump" her. If she rejects the jump, then it's Picho, and not one of Crestwood's valued studs, that's liable to receive a dangerous double-barreled kick. However, if she accepts the jump, poor Picho still loses out, as he's fitted with a leather apron to ensure that his efforts, in advance of the waiting stud's, remain chaste.
The first of today's mares, Genie's Flight, receives Picho's advance by making a puddle. Next, Marc's older brother, Pope Jr., leads in a stallion (snorting and stomping) known as Service Stripe. He's a dark bay 12-year-old with a pretty fair track record and a more than pretty fair record of siring fast runners. He is not Crestwood's meanest stud—that would be Storm Boot, now fidgeting in his stall where he's been known to take bites out of his groom, or lacking such a target, out of his very own chest.
So how many men does it take to restrain a mare and get her bred?
On this day at least six. One to hobble Genie's left foreleg and strap on some protective leather hoof covers ("Mare Jordans," Marc calls them). One to twist her nose with a buck-stopping rope-and-stick device called a twitch. One to get her to face a chest-high padded chute called the bomb shelter (used like a rodeo clown's barrel if a horse goes wild). And one to pull her tail clear so that when Service finally rears up and falls forward on Genie's back, Marc, in the role of the "pilot," can reach in to help keep Service on target and the day's breedings on time.
It is testament to the extreme routinization of this hyperbolic act—and also to the average horseman's calm in the face of everything from killer plagues to reproductive facts—that while Service chuffs and thrusts toward an abruptly gentle collapse on Genie's back, the McLean boys are holding, among other things, a discussion that goes like this: Pope Jr.: "So does that heater in the apartment need a new cap?"
Marc: "I don't know. I shut the water off. I think it's the pump."
Pope Jr.: "When was that furnace put in?"
Marc: "Oh, I don't know, that's a good question. . . . C'mon now Service, you got to squeeze it, buddy, there you go, that a boy, that a boy, good cover. Next?"
It's early May now, and like other farm managers across the Bluegrass, Marc starts his mornings by chaperoning the visit of a daily farm vet, in this case Dr. Jim Smith, from barn to barn. Here Dr. Smith checks on a horse showing signs of colic. There he checks on a newborn unable to figure out how to nurse. Mostly, though, he checks on the mares: the still empty ones to see when they'll come into heat, the newly pregnant ones to see if last year's MRLS has crept back. Thankfully it seems it hasn't, leading to an industry-wide undercurrent—you can hear it in people's voices at all the pre-Derby cocktail parties—of hope.
Maybe that MRLS was a one-time deal. Maybe it's safe now to turn toward some of the industry's other thorny issues, like how to restore an aging fan base and draw new bettors to the track. Or how to compete with the gambling public's growing love of riverboat slots. Or how to deal with a bear market in a business that feeds off excess wealth. Or how to cope with the growing monopolization of the sport's best bloodstock by a small number of Arab and Irish elites. Since entering the business in the 1980s, for example, the Maktoum brothers of Dubai and (the now late) Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have spent more than a billion dollars on Thoroughbreds, mostly in Kentucky, where the prince, the Los Angeles Times once reported, used to jet in with an entourage that included not just a protective food-taster but also an emergency organ donor.
Dr. Smith wheels out his gear. Marc—with an encouraging 102 of his 144 mares already in foal for 2003 and 58 of his 80 babies already on the ground for 2002—takes careful notes. Jen Stilwell, one of Crestwood's few non-Hispanic barn hands, jokes about how the last living (but soon to die) Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, at neighboring Hill 'n' Dale, has his own voice mail. "I don't even have voice mail!" she shrieks. "But then, I guess I'm probably a lot cheaper to breed to." Three barns later, it's more of the same, the morning rolling out on a spool of rough humor until suddenly, after a chat about why one groom fills her pockets with peppermints (to attract the horses that won't come in) and another fills his with $10,000 wads of cash (he doesn't trust banks), Dr. Smith looks up from his ultrasound video monitor and says, "I'm sorry, Marc, but this one's gone."
Marc lowers his clipboard and frowns. The barn hands study their boots. "This one doesn't look good either," Dr. Smith announces. And then, minutes later, he murmurs: "This one's slipped too." Marc nods—the season had been going so well—and trudges off to call his dad. Dr. Smith turns my way. "Careful now," he whispers, gently. "This isn't a good time for any more questions. That was a lot of money right there. And that's not supposed to happen. Not three in a row like that. That's really not good."
Within the hour, however, that number has grown, and Marc has taken to muttering things like "you win some, you lose some" and "it's all part of the game." At about the same time, someone calls to say that the University of Kentucky's MRLS task force has made an announcement: After a year of extensive study, it seems the caterpillars have now, without doubt, been linked to last year's outbreak; some as-yet-unknown something about them proving harmful to pregnant mares that graze them up. "Too bad that that horse is already out of the barn," Marc says, striving for humor.
And then he rejoins Dr. Smith, who checks another dozen or so mares and doesn't find another slipped fetus at Crestwood the rest of the day.
Further confirmation of the plague's return doesn't come until later that week, a harried call from one of the region's many wide-roving vets (some of whom drive 6,000 miles (9,700 kilometers) a month), the 29-year-old Jeanette McCracken, or Dr. J. She's a sharp athletic blonde who likes to say, upon a first meeting, "What, you were expecting someone with an Afro who could dunk?" She's known to some as the vet who once spied a panhandler in need of money for "food and pet shots" and so pulled over to hand him an apple and vaccinate his dog. Now she sounds frazzled, almost weepy, and she speaks of perhaps not buying a house here as she'd planned, because if things continue to go badly, "the whole industry might have to relocate," given all the reports of fetal losses flooding in from Bourbon and Fayette and Woodford Counties to name but a few.
The response, at many farms, is dramatic. Where once some put off felling cherry trees (the caterpillars' favorite roost) because the work would be costly and no MRLS link had been proved, now even the most elegant farms, like Lane's End, owned by Will Farish, ambassador to the United Kingdom, buzz with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of chain-saw work. And every spare minute is given over to defensive chores like respraying fence lines and bringing in mares. What more can be done? At Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's lavish Shadwell Farm, a small army of pickers has been mobilized to prune every caterpillar nest from the trees. More generally (and less expensively), the answer seems to be to carry on as usual, which, about now, means a lot of mingling at catered parties and running off with the kids—who traditionally get some Derby time off from school—to Churchill Downs.
From the backside, the track's profile suggests the lines of a Mississippi paddleboat. On the infield, the grass fills with bellowing college students, many of whom seem happiest when chugging sweet mint juleps and baring their chests. In the jockeys' room, short men with exquisite balance and gorilla-grip handshakes lounge about in towels, their lockers full of enough sugarless gum, strong cigarettes, and mouthwash to let you know that a) you're still in Kentucky where tobacco is king, and b) the practice of "flipping," or throwing up to make weight, still goes on. It's Derby day, and the jocks I spy in passing include Mark Guidry, the languid veteran from Louisiana, shortly after an interview in which he held up his callused palms and said, "I ain't got no baby hands, baby." The celebrated and serious Pat Day is here too. And the fidgety Puerto Rican jock Willie Martinez is tugging at his silks, after an interview in which he mumbled a few rap lyrics—"I got my mind on my money and my money on my mind"—before quietly explaining how it feels to go down in the pack, with your bones breaking under hoof and the taste of blood in your mouth. "This was two years ago, and I was afraid I'd punctured my lung, man, like I was gonna drown in my own blood. You forget how powerful these animals are. But I've got friends who've been paralyzed, and so now, any race I walk away from, I'm like, 'I'm so lucky,' you know?"
The McLeans, meanwhile, visit in turns, with Pope Sr. tipping the track valet $20 because the parking here is not a meritocracy, and unlike his fiscal conservatism on the farm, at the track he feels that "money really talks." Upon his return, though, he discovers that a mare called Shimmering Lace has delivered one of the season's first red bags; yet another reminder that Begin is still at risk.
And so when the Derby festivities at last simmer down after War Emblem's long-shot win, it's decided that Begin ought to be moved into the foaling barn.
For a few days the weather turns evil and the babies don't come. It doesn't take more than a few eons of evolution to know, if you're a horse, that you don't want to go into labor when the barometer drops. Ditto for when the sun arcs high and a sight-hunting predator might more easily spot you. Thus the importance of a night watchman like Crestwood's Cecil Stricklen to monitor the mares after dark.
At some farms, Cecil might make use of a control room full of video monitors to help him keep close tabs on several stalls at once. At Crestwood, however, he goes it mostly low-tech and solo, sitting on a hay bale, in the barn's bare-bulb light, with nothing more than a few honey buns to keep him awake, his hound dog, Duke, for company, and his "foaling bucket" to help him make fast deliveries if that's what it takes. The bucket holds painkillers, disinfectants, syringes, scissors, tail wraps, plus a length of chain for when a foal needs to be yanked out quick. Normally Cecil might pass the night pacing stall to stall and paddock to paddock. But with Begin here, he's been told to keep her in constant sight. If she drops into labor, he'll put a wake-up call in to the McLeans. If there's a problem, he'll wake Dr. J. too, and she'll speed over, no matter the time. But, come midnight on May 19, Begin hasn't begun, and so Cecil reflects. By now, he drawls, the breedings and foalings are "nearly just about done" and the coming July and September auctions are "gonna tell everyone around here an awful lot."
If the auctions go well—that is, if the sales auditoriums at Keeneland and elsewhere fill with well-heeled buyers and the tuxedo-clad bid spotters catch enough discreet nods in the audience to rack up a lot of seven-figure sales—then even the most ravaged farms might make out. But if senior auctioneer Ryan Mahan's gavel sounds on too many cheap offers, and even the Arab and Irish elites seem hesitant to take on more risk, then the horse world might just sink into another one of its cyclical depressions.
As it happens, when the time comes, the July auction will show enough contradictory signs to render almost any prediction incomplete. On the high side, Irishman Demi O'Byrne will raise his hand on a sales-topping 3.1-million-dollar bid for a son of Storm Cat. Yet, below that, the sale will be termed "soft." And though no one knows it yet, the 2003 event will be cancelled—due to MRLS—an unprecedented blow that, a Keeneland official predicts, will hurt nearly "every section of central Kentucky's economy."
Still, Cecil says, he remains "thrilled to be here." Because the McLeans "are pretty good folks," and he just "loves" delivering "babies" and keeping to himself, though he'll soon enough have company. That's because, in just a few hours, Begin will start to pace, her teats will start to drip, and then she'll break water, go down in her stall, and start to push. If the first thing to turtle out is a shock of red placenta, it'll be a problem. But that doesn't happen, and the foal squishes forth, with a little gentle pulling, all shivering and wet and ready to stand (or even run) in less time than it takes to read the Daily Racing Form.
"She gave us a healthy bay colt," Marc says, groggy and relieved after news of Begin's baby has spread the next morning and most of the farm's staff has found reason to stop by and gawk.
So could this colt, if he sells well, be enough to offset two years of MRLS?
Marc pauses. Without question, the industry's suffered another harsh season. Yet, rather than dwelling on any losses, Marc chuckles. "We're just glad this one came out right," he says. And then he tells of checking on his prized "little fella" and discovering, happily, that he'd been given a nickname. On the chalkboard nameplate outside his stall, an optimistic barn hand had already written in "Champion."